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Profile: Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt was a participant or observer in the following events:

President Theodore Roosevelt, wielding what will become known as the theory of inherent power, declares that the presidency has a “residuum of powers” to do anything not specifically forbidden by the Constitution. Without asking Congress for its approval, Roosevelt launches the project to build the Panama Canal, sends the US Navy around the world, and sends US troops to the Dominican Republic. In 2009, reporter and author Charlie Savage will write, “Roosevelt’s views… contained the seeds of the imperial presidency that would arise during the first decades of the Cold War.” Roosevelt’s successor, future Supreme Court Chief Justice William Howard Taft, will disagree, and Taft’s presidency will restore some of the limits on presidential power removed by Roosevelt. (Savage 2007, pp. 17-18)

Future president Theodore Roosevelt, writing about the use of waterboarding as an interrogation method during the Spanish-American War, defends the practice. “The enlisted men began to use the old Filipino method: the water cure” (see 1800 and After), he writes in a letter. “Nobody was seriously damaged.” During the war, a US soldier, Major Edwin Glenn, was suspended and fined by an Army court-martial for waterboarding a prisoner. The Army judge advocate wrote that the charges constituted a “resort to torture with a view to extort a confession.” He recommended disapproval because “the United States cannot afford to sanction the addition of torture.” (Weiner 11/3/2007)

A 1902 portrait of President Roosevelt.A 1902 portrait of President Roosevelt. [Source: Library of Congress]In a speech given to an audience in Providence, Rhode Island, later entitled “The Control of Corporations,” President Theodore Roosevelt gives a passionate warning about the dangers of the nation’s prosperity being concentrated in the hands of the few, and particularly under the control of a few large corporations. Roosevelt says: “One of the features of the tremendous industrial development of the last generation has been the very great increase in private, and especially in corporate, fortunes.… Where men are gathered together in great masses it inevitably results that they must work far more largely through combinations than where they live scattered and remote from one another.… It is not true that the poor have grown poorer; but some of the rich have grown so very much richer that, where multitudes of men are herded together in a limited space, the contrast strikes the onlooker as more violent than formerly. On the whole, our people earn more and live better than ever before, and the progress of which we are so proud could not have taken place had it not been for the up building of industrial centers, such as this in which I am speaking. But together with the good there has come a measure of evil.… Under present-day conditions it is as necessary to have corporations in the business world as it is to have organizations, unions, among wage-workers. We have a right to ask in each case only this: that good, and not harm, shall follow. Exactly as labor organizations, when managed intelligently and in a spirit of justice and fair play, are of very great service not only to the wage-workers, but to the whole community, as has been shown again and again in the history of many such organizations; so wealth, not merely individual, but corporate, when used aright is not merely beneficial to the community as a whole, but is absolutely essential to the upbuilding of such a series of communities as those whose citizens I am now addressing.… The great corporations which we have grown to speak of rather loosely as trusts are the creatures of the state [the federal government], and the state not only has the right to control them, but it is in duty bound to control them wherever the need of such control is shown. There is clearly need of supervision—need to possess the power of regulation of these great corporations through the representatives of the public wherever, as in our own country at the present time, business corporations become so very powerful alike for beneficent work and for work that is not always beneficent. It is idle to say that there is no need for such supervision. There is, and a sufficient warrant for it is to be found in any one of the admitted evils appertaining to them.” Such government controls are rightfully difficult to put in place, Roosevelt says, because of the constitutional guarantees afforded both individuals and corporate entities, and because of the disparity of laws enacted in the various states. However, “I believe that the nation must assume this power of control by legislation; if necessary by constitutional amendment,” he says. “The immediate necessity in dealing with trusts is to place them under the real, not the nominal, control of some sovereign to which, as its creatures, the trusts shall owe allegiance, and in whose courts the sovereign’s orders may be enforced.” Such government regulation and oversight must be enforced with caution and restraint, he warns, but nevertheless, it must be enacted. (Theodore Roosevelt (.com) 8/23/1902; ed. 2003, pp. 20-21) Roosevelt’s position is ironic considering the vast corporate contributions he will accept to win the presidency in 1904 (he ascended to the presidency in 1901 after President William McKinley was assassinated). Roosevelt will accept large donations from railroad and insurance interests, and will make a personal appeal to steel baron Henry Clay Frick and other industrialists. Frick will later recall: “He got down on his knees to us. We bought the son of a b_tch and then he did not stay bought.” During his second term, Roosevelt will strive to pass significant campaign finance reform legislation that would ban some of the techniques he will use to regain office. (Toobin 5/21/2012)

President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, in a speech given to the US Congress, proposes that corporations be expressly forbidden by law from contributing money “to any political committee or for any political purpose.” Neither should corporate directors be permitted to use stockholders’ money for political purposes. Roosevelt does not say that corporate owners should be so restricted. Roosevelt also says federal campaigns should be publicly financed via their political parties. Roosevelt’s proposal is made in part because he was accused of improperly accepting corporate donations for his 1904 presidential campaign. (Roosevelt 12/5/1905; Center for Responsive Politics 2002 pdf file; Moneyocracy 2/2012) Roosevelt, who has made similar statements in the past (see August 23, 1902), will echo these proposals in additional speeches. (Geraci 2006 pdf file) Two years later, Roosevelt will sign into law a bill proscribing such donations (see 1907).

Senator Benjamin Tillman, an ardent segregationist who once said, ‘My Democracy means white supremacy.’ Senator Benjamin Tillman, an ardent segregationist who once said, ‘My Democracy means white supremacy.’ [Source: Black Americans in Congress]President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt signs the Tillman Act into law. The Act prohibits monetary contributions to national political campaigns by corporations and national banks. Roosevelt, dogged by allegations that he had accepted improper donations during his 1904 presidential campaign, has pushed for such restrictions since he took office (see August 23, 1902 and December 5, 1905). (Federal Elections Commission 1998; Center for Responsive Politics 2002 pdf file; Moneyocracy 2/2012) Senator Benjamin Tillman (D-SC), later described by National Public Radio as a “populist and virulent racist,” sponsored the bill. (National Public Radio 2012) In 1900, Tillman was quoted as saying about black voters: “We have done our level best. We have scratched our heads to find out how we could eliminate every last one of them. We stuffed ballot boxes. We shot them. We are not ashamed of it.” (Atlas 2010, pp. 205) Unfortunately, the law is easily circumvented. Businesses and corporations give employees large “bonuses” with the understanding that the employee then gives the bonus to a candidate “endorsed” by the firm. Not only do the corporations find and exploit this loophole, they receive an additional tax deduction for “employee benefits.” The law will be amended to cover primary elections in 1911 (see 1911). (Campaign Finance Timeline 1999)

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